STATE COLLEGE — For much of the year, State College and its nearly 42,000 residents rank as Pennsylvania’s 17th largest city by population.
During seven Saturdays in the fall, however, this college town blossoms into the commonwealth’s third-most populous city.
The increase comes largely from Penn State football, which drew an average of 105,678 fans to Beaver Stadium in 2019. Penn State’s home attendance ranked second among all Football Bowl Subdivision programs last season.
Hotels, restaurants, retail establishments and other area businesses rely on football weekends to support their bottom lines. As such, a modified or perhaps even canceled 2020 football season will have a sweeping financial impact on the region.
The Big Ten Conference announced July 9 the cancellation of all non-conference games for its 14 member institutions. The move leaves Penn State with two fewer home games for 2020.
Jeff Harman owns The Stevens Motel in State College. A recognizable yellow sign adorned with daisies is visible to passersby on North Atherton Street. Harman has owned The Stevens Motel for 57 years.
The motel has welcomed guests every football season it's been open.
“We run full capacity for every home game,” Harman said. “Most of my clientele is long-term, repeat guests. I’m very familiar with the folks who stay here. The majority of them stay in the same room for every game — a lot of them are season ticket holders. A real stable group of folks. Most of them have been staying with me for many years.”
Harman will lose the income that would have been generated from the previously scheduled Kent State (Sept. 5) and San Jose State (Sept. 19) games.
Full cancellation of the football season will be even more debilitating. Guests of The Stevens Motel have already booked all rooms for the 2020 season.
“It will eliminate 100% of those rentals,” Harman said. “I lose everything. It is a 100% total loss as far as the football game goes. That money will be refunded to my guests. These people have booked as of last November to January of this year and have paid already. I have received all income for my football season already.”
Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour in June stated she didn’t see full-house scenarios for Beaver Stadium this fall, and she also hinted admittance to football games could be limited to season ticket holders. Rutgers has already announced it won't have fans for home games. Ohio State officials said last week it will limit capacity to 20 percent at Ohio Stadium.
“In theory right now, the season is a loss to me,” Harman said. “It hasn’t been announced yet, but there’s no way we’re going to get 105,000 people into town on those weekends, in my opinion. It’s not going to happen.”
Income from renting homes
In 2019 alone, State College property owners brought in $2.2 million by renting their homes out to visiting fans through the popular Airbnb vacation rental service.
According to data from Airbnb, Penn State’s White Out game against Michigan on Oct. 19 brought State College-area Airbnb hosts a season-high $740,000 for the weekend of Oct. 18-20. The second-highest grossing Airbnb weekend last season was when Purdue visited on Oct. 5 for Penn State’s homecoming. Area hosts collected $453,000 from Oct. 3-5, the company's data shows.
Penn State’s first two games of the season against non-conference opponents Idaho ($90,500) and Buffalo ($147,000) combined to net Airbnb hosts $237,500. Penn State was scheduled to welcome non-conference opponents Kent State and San Jose State to Happy Valley.
One of the most popular Airbnb rentals in State College last season was a basement apartment located just three miles from Beaver Stadium. The one-bedroom, one-bathroom property accommodates up to three guests. As of Friday, it was reserved for all but three Saturdays this football season.
Liam Goble owns five single-family homes in State College he rents out during the football season to fans. He’s rented on Airbnb for four years.
“By this time last year, I was almost fully booked up for the football season,” Goble said. “I might have one game filled up right now. It is dead. People are concerned about what’s going on nationally with the pandemic. … I think the big question everyone’s waiting to see is — especially with the MLB now canceling some games because of the pandemic hitting the (Miami) Marlins — is football going to happen? If so, how is it going to happen?”
Airbnb on Thursday announced State College as one of Pennsylvania’s most-visited destinations for June travelers who live 300 miles from their destination. Although the lack of a normal football season would cut into the income of some State College renters, Airbnb communications manager Sam Russell said he believes some of that income could be supplemented by nearby visitors looking for a quick getaway.
“I can’t speculate as to what the number would be, and I think there are a lot of unknowns right now particularly around sports,” Russell said. “I think State College will continue to be a destination for people to travel to within the state and (who) possibly hop in their car and cross state borders.”
The scaled-back and possible non-existent fan experience this season won’t only affect brick-and-mortar businesses. Rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft employ contracted drivers who are prominently used during the school year by Penn State students. During home football weekends, four-year State College Uber driver Shawn Ingold said demand for drivers remains high.
“The summer is already slow up here for a driver,” Ingold said. “So whenever students come back and (with) football weekends, you’re making a good amount of money. … If the drivers do it right, they can budget it out for the year.”
Ingold, who hasn’t driven since March because of safety concerns, said the State College Uber community is comprised of residents from various backgrounds, and the loss of ridership and income this fall could have an adverse effect.
“The people who drive for Uber are teachers, grad-school spouses, college kids to help pay for rent and pay for school, retirees maybe to supplement their income or pay for medication because that’s so expensive,” Ingold said. “The impact is going to be huge.”
Penn State announced June 14 it will reopen its campuses to students this fall. The semester is expected to begin Aug. 24. The University Park campus has implemented safety measures into its student code of conduct and maintains it will ensure its students adhere to local health guidelines and those created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Students will be asked to sign a pledge to affirm that they will adhere to basic, but key, public health expectations and are expected to observe these practices off campus as well,” read a statement from Penn State.
Penn State’s University Park campus accommodated 46,723 undergraduate and graduate students as of November 2019, according to statistics from the university. According to an October 2019 article from U.S. News & World Report, Penn State’s University Park campus boasts the ninth-largest undergraduate enrollment in the United States. With such a large student body, rental properties in State College remain in high demand.
Todd Hawbaker of Park Forest Enterprises Inc. said the company has five buildings in downtown State College which cater directly to the town’s student population. The company manages 350 units in Centre County.
According to Hawbaker, the company hasn’t noticed a direct impact between the coronavirus pandemic and a hesitancy by occupants to either renew or sign leases on properties.
“The majority of people renewed their lease and didn’t want to move, and I think that created a weak supply,” Hawbaker said. “There wasn’t that much available, and the things that we did list on our website were rented very quickly this year.”
While Hawbaker said Park Forest Enterprises’s experiences aren’t representative of the entire area, he mentioned he felt encouraged by what he’s seen during sporadic browsing online.
“When I do searches and things on the internet, I find that State College doesn’t have a lot available,” he said.
While Penn State football is attached to the State College economy and the loss of a season could prove crippling, local business owners said the coronavirus’ impact in Centre County is already being felt. With Penn State commencement ceremonies, the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, U.S. Olympic Team Trials for wrestling and other economic drivers already canceled, business owners are forced to reassess.
“The reality of this is football is seven games a year — that’s 14 days out of 365,” Harman said. “It is a wonderful chunk of income for local businesses. There’s no doubt about that. The other impact is the fact that every other event has been canceled, as well. It’s across the board. There’s just nothing happening.”
For some in the State College Airbnb community, they’ve already unlisted their properties for short-term stay during the football season and have transitioned to long-term rentals.
“I’m in touch with a bunch of hosts locally, and I know a lot of people are pulling their properties off Airbnb, trying to get long-term renters in,” Goble said. “Just with the uncertainty across everything that’s going on, they just want to lock in somebody in their rentals, so there are a lot people pulling — from what I hear, the people I talk to — their Airbnbs and just making them more traditional rentals.”